The lobby of New York's Mercer Hotel is a haven of downtown chic — all angular furniture in shades of eggplant, with oblong oversize lampshades atop carved wooden posts. A wall lined with bookshelves displays volumes on Toulouse-Lautrec, Robert Mapplethorpe and Andy Warhol alongside studies of designers Vivienne Tam and Salvatore Ferragamo and anthologies on modernist architecture. The place is, as Gwen Stefani puts it, "super frickin' trendy cool," the kind of hotel where everyone pretends not to notice when Micky Hilton saunters past the reception desk.
But someone has taken notice of Stefani, lounging inconspicuously on a leather cafe chair on this late December evening. Stefani is done up in the luxe street style that has made her an international fashion icon: dark-wash jeans from her own L.A.M.B. label ("They look good whether I'm a little fatter, or not," she says), a L.A.M.B. wife-beater, suede Christian Dior clogs that add three and a half inches to her height and platinum-blond hair extensions bubbling out from under a blue knit ski cap. She slouches lower in her seat. "There's this guy over there and he won't stop staring at me," she says.
I turn around and see a toddler — no more than a year old, big blue eyes, hair so fair it blends in almost completely with his scalp — gazing in our direction. Stefani giggles. "The little baby," she says. "So cute."
Stefani has always been the kind of songwriter who lives out her most private dilemmas in public. "Don't Speak," the song that put No Doubt over the top in 1996, was about the breakup of her seven-year relationship with bass player Tony Kanal. In 2000, after four years of dating Bush frontman Gavin Rossdale, she made a video for No Doubt's "Simple Kind of Life," where she ran wild in a wedding dress while singing, "I always thought I'd be a mom/Sometimes I wish for a mistake." True to form, the first single from her recent solo debut, "What You Waiting For?," chronicles her intense baby lust — the "tick-lock" refrain of the chorus, she says, was inspired in part by the sound of her biological clock.
During the three days I spend with her, her desire to have children is a continual theme, whether she's talking about how she never planned on being a pop star ("Before that, all I ever did was, like, look at Tony and pray that God would let me have a baby with him") or the joy of marrying Rossdale ("It's such a beautiful, magical feeling, I can't explain it. It's like having a baby. I can imagine what it might be like. But that love I've never experienced") or her plans for the future ("I don't know what I'm going to do, but I've always wanted to do the family thing").
And like any successful woman on the mommy track, she worries about the conflicts of career and family, although most women don't have to stress about the demands of dressing as fairy-tale characters in music videos. "At a certain point I'm going to want to have a family," Stefani says, "and I'm not going to have time to be running around the world doing this shit and being greedy the way I have been. I can always write songs. But can I always wear an Alice in Wonderland costume? I probably shouldn't. I can at home. I was thinking that when I have children, that I should always dress as a character for them, so they think their mom is Alice in Wonderland or Cinderella. It would be totally messed up!"
"I hope she chooses to do both things," says Jimmy lovine, the chairman of Stefani's label, Interscope, of the star's career and family ambitions. "She can handle both. I think she would really miss not fulfilling her potential as an artist, and she'd regret that. But her potential as a mom is equally as powerful."
"This is the first time in a long time that I actually don't know what's gonna happen next," Stefani finally says. "You think about it as a famous person. You think about how you're gonna end it. How you're gonna get away and have a normal life. I imagine my children are going to save me from my vanity and be my passion and fill whatever fears I have of the amazing time I'm having right now being gone. I don't want to drop off and not be on the radio or not be able to talk about myself for hours. I don't want it to go away. But at the same time, I never expected to be here in the first place."
Disturbing but true: Listen to rock radio these days and you'll hear a woman's voice only if it belongs to Gwen Stefani or Evanescence's Amy Lee. Lee sure sold a lot of records in the past few years, but Stefani is the only true female rock star left on radio or MTV "She's toured from when she was eighteen years old playing small clubs, to playing small theaters, then amphitheaters and then arenas," says Iovine. "She is the only woman on pop radio right now who has toured with that vigor, and she's the only one who could as easily tour with U2, Green Day and OutKast."
Almost ten years after "Just a Girl" hit airwaves, Stefani has an instantly recognizable voice, an inimitable sense of style and an impact on popular culture on par with Madonna's. "There will never be anyone else quite like her," says Garbage singer Shirley Manson, who has known Stefani since the mid-Nineties and toured with No Doubt in 2002. "She's got an extraordinary mixture of the elements that make a great pop star and the elements that make a great rock star. She's like the perfect Trojan horse: She seems very benign and wholesome, but underneath lurks an incredible toughness and powerful directness. Nobody can copy her, because she's this uniquely extraordinary contradiction."
Indeed, Stefani is one of the only Nineties stars who has managed to hold the attention of the ever-churning teen audience. Her solo debut, Love, Angel, Music, Baby, sold half a million copies in its first two weeks. She recently scored a pair of Grammy nominations: one for "What You Waiting For?" and one with No Doubt for their cover of Talk Talk's "It's My Life." (If she wins both, her Grammy collection will expand to five.) In December, she made her big-screen debut — albeit in a blink-and-you'11-miss-it role — playing Jean Harlow in Martin Scorsese's Howard Hughes biopic, The Aviator. And last night, she went to the holiday party for her clothing line, which is preparing its fourth collection for fall 2005.
Love, Angel, Music, Baby is the kind of Eighties-style electro dance album that Stefani grew up on in Orange County, California. It's so Eighties, in fact, that members of New Order are the backing band on "The Real Thing," alongside collaborations with OutKast's André 3000, Dr. Dre and Eve, the Neptunes, Dallas Austin and Linda Perry. "Right now in my life, I'm all about trying things I've never done," Stefani says. "I'm a woman and I'm thirty-five. I don't have that much time left to do this kind of pop record. Let's be real about it."
The idea for the album, she says, came to her one morning during No Doubt's Rock Steady tour two years ago. She heard one of her favorite dance tracks from the Eighties, Club Nouveau's "Why You Treat Me So Bad," turned to Kanal over breakfast and said, "I want to do that song." It was Kanal, after all, who had introduced her to that kind of music when the two were teenage sweethearts, before she turned him onto ska, before No Doubt had a record deal.
"I was super ska girl when I met Tony," she says. "I wore only black and white and these hoop earrings. Tony went to Anaheim High School, which is the big cholo school. He came over here from England at eleven. He has Indian parents, and he was the first-born, so he didn't have any influences. He thought he was Prince. Because I had a crush on him, he turned me on to Prince and Lisa Lisa and Debbie Deb, and that stuff has always had a special place in my heart."
When No Doubt got to the end of the tour in late 2002, everyone in the band was ready for a break. Stefani had just married Rossdale, Kanal "had his first real girlfriend," guitarist Tom Dumont was engaged, and drummer Adrian Young's wife had given birth to their first baby. "Everything started changing," Stefani explains. "All those years we were only committed to each other, but then we grew up. You could tell certain people in the band needed a break."
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